Strategy #1: Add vintage appliances to realize a Depression-era vision.
Margaret Keilty had been searching for a house with then-husband Raymond Shove for some time, but the ones they toured never seemed quite right. “What is it that you want?” Raymond would ask her. “I’ll know when I see it,” was always her response. One day, they stumbled upon an abandoned 1850s folk Victorian farmhouse in Sharon, Connecticut, with a dirt cellar and 8′-tall grass encroaching upon the back porch. Raymond dismissed it as a dump, but Margaret was hooked. “There was something about the way it stood there, not too far from the street. I knew immediately that this was my house.”
The two-story farmhouse isn’t elaborate; it’s sturdy and strong, built with hand-cut nails and corner boards that are mitered in place. Margaret envisioned a simple, utilitarian early 20th-century kitchen, grounded by a well-traveled Monitor Top refrigerator.
The fridge had belonged to her father, who had removed it from his brother-in-law’s home in the 1950s. At that time, a fridge with a compressor on top was considered a sign of poverty, so the in-laws wanted it gone. The fridge had served as a basement beer-and-soda cooler for Mar-garet’s dad; when her mother said she was getting rid of it after he died, Margaret had to have it. “The Monitor Top fit perfectly with the vision I had for the kitchen,” she says.
Margaret and her partner, Mark LaMonica, immediately began looking for a vintage stove to accompany the refrigerator, and found a 1923 Bengal gas-and-coal combination. “It’s a cream and green porcelain and cast iron number that sits on little legs, with a shelf on top and nickel plating everywhere,” Margaret gushes. The couple found it in a nearby town, where someone had been using it as a plant stand. Margaret and Mark took the Bengal apart and gently cleaned it (taking care not to lose the patina), hooked it to gas, and now use it every day. They also worked to undo some of the cosmetic changes (like room partitions) that Margaret’s ex-husband had installed in the kitchen, and restored the plaster and refinished the floors.
The kitchen’s crowning glory is a pantry that Margaret created by removing a wall between the kitchen and a woodshed. She built the pantry with open shelves on top and cabinets at bottom, then accented it with a two-tone paint scheme, porcelain knobs, brass hinges, and a 2″-thick pine countertop cut from local wood. While she created the pantry with her ex-husband, it’s Mark who added the finishing touch: a row of windows along the back wall that added a drop-dead mountain view to the workspace. Mark and Margaret found the wood double-hungs at the local lumberyard.
“I was very conscious of how I approached it,” Margaret says of her kitchen design. “I didn’t want to spoil this house by putting anything modern into it.” While a few friends don’t understand the appeal of her utilitarian early kitchen (some have asked over the years, “When are you going to put a kitchen in?”), Margaret thinks it’s perfect just the way it is.
Strategy #2: Create custom cabinets to echo original Arts & Crafts handiwork.
When Diane Mall purchased her modest 1,600-square-foot 1906 bungalow in Pacific Grove, California, it was in fair shape—except for the kitchen. “It was pretty bad,” she recalls. “It looked like it might have been redone in the 1960s.” Layers of linoleum had been covered with hideous ceramic tile, metal cabinets lined the walls, and a closet had been appropriated to add extra space, resulting in an awkward layout.
“I wanted to restore it to what it would have looked like originally,” Diane says—so she called in contractor R.C. Banjanin, owner of Jade Coast Construction, whom she and her husband had worked with on previous projects.
To correct the layout issues, R.C. returned the closet annex to the master bedroom and created space for the fridge by removing an old chimney that had once vented a wood-burning stove. He also shifted the doorway that leads to the adjacent sleeping porch to make room for more counter space. The layout adjustments actually made the 11′ x 13′ room slightly smaller, but it feels more open now, thanks to the improved design.
The kitchen did have one redeeming feature to its credit—an original built-in pantry with a pass-through window to a built-in buffet in the dining room. Most of the doors on the pantry had been replaced (only the sliding doors on the pass-through were original), and the entire thing had been painted white, but the basic structure was still intact.
R.C. removed the pantry’s doors and stripped it of paint, then fashioned new doors out of Douglas fir. Their single-panel profile matches the original doors on the dining-room buffet. Above the pass-through window, he fitted the doors with slag-glass panels to allow light to penetrate through the leaded glass windows of the dining-room buffet.
He also custom-designed identical banks of cabinets to go under the sink and along the opposite wall, where the metal cabinets once hung. The new cabinets were built entirely on site: “There’s no way we could have bought cabinets and made them look right,” R.C. says.
He upped the cabinets’ authenticity with reproduction catches and bin pulls from Rejuvenation, selected to match the original hardware on the dining-room buffet. “Even though it’s brass, the buffet hardware had all turned black, so we decided to go with a darker finish,” R.C. explains.
For the countertops, he originally had planned to use Minnesota pipestone, a reddish clay stone, but in the end, he decided to go with similarly colored Silestone due to its greater availability and durability. He finished the restoration with ½” tongue-and-groove white oak flooring to match original flooring in the rest of the house. “Once we redid the floors, everything just flowed,” he observes. Diane agrees: “A lot of people think it’s an old kitchen, but everything except the pantry is brand new.”
Find kitchen cabinets in the Old-House Products & Services Directory.
Strategy #3: Change little, but add a lot of panache.
Some people have terrific vision when it comes to old houses—they can easily see beyond bad wallpaper and shag carpets to the gem that lies beneath. That wasn’t the case for Portland, Oregon, couple Michelle and Dan Cutugno.
When their realtor first walked them through a 1949 ranch designed by Ken Birkemeier, they told her they weren’t interested. “It just looked like a cosmetic nightmare,” Michelle says. But then the realtor took them to another Birkemeier house down the street—one that had been nicely rehabilitated. “It was like, ‘Wow, that’s what our house could look like?’” Michelle explains. They walked back through the ranch with new eyes, thinking of all the things they could do to make it better, and bought it.
Michelle and Dan couldn’t move in right away, because the kitchen wasn’t functional. It retained just a single working appliance—a dishwasher that appeared as old as the house. As they worked on a plan for the kitchen, they knew they wanted to keep as many original features as possible—features they began to appreciate more and more through an educational program at Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center that provided them a wealth of information. (The Cutugnos’ kitchen was open to the public on the Architectural Heritage Center’s April Kitchen Revival Tour.)
“We really liked the charm of the home and the funkiness of it, including the groovy tile countertops in the kitchen,” Michelle says. But they felt a little intimidated trying to find a color for the cabinets that would work with the vivid tiles, so they found designer Jennifer Roos to help them select paint colors.
She suggested a two-tone scheme with off-white on the upper cabinets and a greenish-gray on the bases, a color that would be repeated on the scalloped decorative trim at the ceiling. “We never could have come up with that color combo on our own,” Dan says. The scheme works to keep the vibrant tiles the focus of the room.
The cabinets themselves required a fair amount of work. While they are all original, they had contact or wallpaper covering all of their interior surfaces. Dan worked with a contractor to strip, sand, and repaint them. Then he and Michelle selected new pulls with a retro feel, which they found at Chown Hardware.
Next on the list was a lighting fixture discovered at Schoolhouse Electric. “It’s got that beautiful blue/green color on it that really complements the countertop tiles,” says Michelle. To accompany their new stove, Michelle and Dan needed to install a backsplash. They opted for modern glass subway-style tiles with an inset design that echoes the hue of the hexes.
The flooring was a relatively easy selection. At purchase, the kitchen sported a crumbling vinyl floor, which clearly was not original. Michelle and Dan had been intrigued by Marmoleum since they had researched it as a possibility for their last home. It proved to be an era-appropriate fit, and Jennifer helped them choose a dark pattern that resembles mottled stone.
“We wanted to update the kitchen and keep it in character with the rest of the house,” says Michelle. “We’re really proud of how it turned out.”
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Online Exclusive: 6 More Strategies
Creating a kitchen that fits with your house is all about taking inspiration from period details. Check out 6 more amazing transformations below, which grace homes of all different vintages—from colonial-era farmhouse to 1920s Tudor.
To read more about these kitchens (and see more photos!), pick up a copy of The Old-House Guide.Published in: Old-House Journal June/July 2011